Extinct Tree From Christ's Time Rises From the Dead

Ancient date seeds from Masada. (Image credit: Guy Eisner / Courtesy of Science Magazine)

Scientists have grown a tree from what may be the oldest seed ever germinated.

The new sapling was sprouted from a 2,000-year-old date palm excavated in Masada, the site of a cliff-side fortress in Israel where ancient Jews are said to have killed themselves to avoid capture by Roman invaders.

Dubbed the "Methuselah Tree" after the oldest person in the Bible, the new plant has been growing steadily, and after 26 months, the tree was nearly four-feet (1.2 meters) tall.

The species of tree, called the Judean date, (Phoenix dactylifera L.), is now extinct in Israel, but researchers are hoping that by reviving the plant they may be able to study its medicinal uses.

"The medicinal plants from this region are very important because they are historically mentioned in the Bible and the Koran," said Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, which initiated the experiment to grow the tree as part of its Middle East Medicinal Plant Project.

"The Judean date was very valuable and very famous, not just as a source of food but as a source of medicine," Sallon said. "When I heard there were ancient seeds found in the archeological dig, I thought it would be interesting to see if we could try to grow them."

Carbon dating of the seeds found at Masada revealed that they date from roughly the time of the ancient fortress' siege, in A.D. 73. The seeds were found in storage rooms, and appear to have been stockpiled for the Jews hiding out against the invading Romans.

"They were buried under mounds of debris on the top of the archaeological site of Masada," Sallon told LiveScience. "The Jews all committed suicide rather than give in to the Romans, and the Romans pretty much destroyed the site after that. It was more or less left for the next 2,000 years."

The seeds were excavated about 40 years ago, along with skeletons of those who died during the siege. Since then, the seeds had been languishing in a drawer until Sallon and her team decided to attempt to grow them anew.

They turned the project over to plant specialist Elaine Solowey at the Arava Institute of the Environment in Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. She pretreated the seeds in fertilizers and hormone-rich solution, and then planted them. So far, Methuselah is the only one to sprout.

Though a few trees have been planted from seeds that are rumored to be older than the Masada ones, the Methuselah tree holds the record for the oldest directly-dated seed to be germinated. Scientists determined its age from control seeds taken from the same batch, and from shell fragments from the sprouted seed itself.

Beyond being exciting as a piece of history literally come to life, Sallon said, the new date plant may hold the key to rediscovering ancient healing techniques.

"When we look at ancient sources and Hebrew texts, the dates were used for all kinds of things — pulmonary problems, tuberculosis, dysentery, cancer. We think of it today as just a food. But in fact the date wasn't just a food."

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Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both Space.com and Live Science.